Eminem’s ‘The Marshall Mathers LP’ at 20: why it’s a misunderstood masterpiece

It might be the most divisive album in music, but the Detroit MC's magnum opus also offered refuge to a generation of disenfranchised teens

To quote the great Chuck D of Public Enemy: “Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant shit to me.” But fast forward a couple of decades and another blue-eyed artist would go on to mean shit to me – and several million other people if record sales are to be the measuring stick of likeability.

To date, Eminem has sold over 100 million records worldwide. Of those 100 million, about a third belong to his third studio album, ‘The Marshall Mathers LP’, which turns 20 today. Released May 23, 2000 and widely considered to be Em’s magnum opus, it instantly lit a fire up under the music industry and kept burning for months to come. If you think Drake’s streaming figures are impressive today, how about selling close to 1.8 million physical copies in a single week? That’s what ‘MMLP’ did, making it the fastest-selling album of all-time in the US before it was dethroned in 2015 by Adele’s ’25’.

 

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But while the album was wildly popular, it was also heavily criticised. Eminem’s unapologetic temperament and twisted humour, which often came as he dipped in and out of his alter ego Slim Shady, saw him enter some very challenging territory across its 18-track offering. Spewing out shock and awe with unrelenting aggression at every turn, he left no-one out of his firing line. In retrospect, there’s no justifying some of Eminem’s bile: one minute he’s poking fun at disabled actors (‘Who Knew’), and the next he’s branding girls as “nothing but a slut to me” (‘Kill You’). Elsewhere, he makes jokes about the gay community (‘Bitch Please II’), and on ‘I’m Back’ he renders the shooters of the Columbine High School massacre as the real victims.

It’s easy to see why ‘The Marshall Mathers LP’ might be the most divisive album in music, and there’s no denying that some of its lyrical content is hurtful towards certain groups of people. I have to admit, though, that as a younger man I was more focused on how the album felt like an antidepressant, a type of audio medication, one that offered me a break from the volatile upbringing I was forced to endure as a 17-year-old living with an alcoholic mother and, before he was kicked out of the house, a sometimes violent father.

The album gave me an excuse to scream the angst out of my soul. ‘Kim’, ‘MMLP’s most famous and problematic song, depicts Em fictitiously killing his ex-wife over a raging backdrop that samples Led Zeppelin’s ‘When The Levee Breaks’. The lyrics are shocking and upsetting, but at the time I gravitated towards the song’s general sense of anguish; it was a cathartic outlet for my frustration. You only have to listen to ‘Sing For The Moment’ from 2002’s ‘The Eminem Show’, to understand the intense kinship Em’s fans have with his music. With that song he addresses the sense of catharsis that he and other rappers offer their alienated, disenfranchised fans: ‘”They throw on a rap record, and they sit and they vibe / We’re nothing to you, but we’re the fuckin’ shit in their eyes.” 

On another ‘MMLP’ track, ‘Stan’, Eminem documents the extreme end of this relationship, corresponding with a crazed fan who becomes increasingly unhinged as the song progresses. It’s a direct response to some of his fans who had sent him disturbing letters indicating they had taken some of the content on his 1999 album ‘The Slim Shady LP’ seriously. And the Dido-sampling song became a cultural phenomenon; so much so that the word ‘stan’ was added to the Oxford Dictionary in 2017 as both a noun and verb to describe “an extremely or excessively enthusiastic and devoted fan”.

The more you dive into the album – especially all these years later – the more you realise that with ‘The Marshall Mathers LP’ Eminem became rap’s first troll. And this way before the internet became the troll breeding ground it is today.

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But in amongst the lyrical jabs aimed at pop stars, actors, politicians and members of his own family, there was refuge for the disenfranchised youth. Eminem’s rage and fury, filtered through his experiences of a deeply troubled childhood, offered a way for damaged teens to vent, knowing that they weren’t the only ones suffering. This is why many of us continue to have a complicated relationship with the album to this day.

Eminem’s upending of the mainstream, particularly through the release of ‘The Marshall Mathers LP’, earned him countless enemies. From religious groups to government officials, he faced no shortage of protesters, but while Middle America – as well as occupants of other suburban areas around the world – hated him, their kids loved him, his music and and his rebellious nature.

You can love him or loathe him, but the fact we’re still talking about ‘The Marshall Mathers LP’ 20 years later speaks to its undeniable impact.

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